|John Carroll couldn't get out of the grasp of Mount Union's defense on Saturday.
Photo by Dan Poel, Ohiosi.com
By Joe Sager
John Carroll thought it had a pretty good team coming into the season.
The Blue Streaks got a chance to validate that with an early matchup against Mount Union.
Two fumbles returned for touchdowns proved to be the difference as the top-ranked Purple Raiders held on for a 23-10 home win.
“We want to play great teams at the beginning of the season because we want to get a measuring stick of what we’re made of real quick,” JCU coach Rick Finotti said. “We play games to put ourselves in position to win. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. We need to turn it into a lesson. If we don’t learn from it, we’re doing a disservice to the team and a disservice for ourselves.”
After dispatching UW-Stevens Point (45-21) and Otterbein (45-0) to start the year, the Blue Streaks faced Mount Union in a matchup that recently has taken place in November, usually with the OAC title on the line.
“It was definitely different playing them so early. We didn’t have a lot of film on each other at this point in the season. In previous years, we had all nine games. It’s kind of weird. We both only played one conference game before it,” JCU senior safety Mike Connick said. “It was nice, though, because it shows us where we are and where we have to be in the next coming weeks. It was a good test for us early in the season.
“It proved a lot, especially with our defense. We proved we can hang with the best. In my opinion, I think we’re among the best defenses in the country.”
John Carroll had a 7-6 lead in the game until Danny Robinson returned a fumble 13 yards for a score with 59 seconds left in the first half. The Purple Raiders built their lead to 16-7 in the third. The Blue Streaks got within 16-10 early in the fourth on a field goal. John Carroll had a chance to win late in the contest. The team drove to the Mount Union 43 with 44 seconds left. However, Louis Berry took his own strip sack 45 yards to the end zone to secure the win.
“It was a tough loss,” JCU sophomore running back Mike Canganelli said. “I think what great players, coaches and teams do is embrace the pain. They remember how painful it was and burn it as fuel for the games going forward. I think it’s only going to motivate us and make us a stronger as a team.”
The loss not only hurt because it came to a rival, but the teams’ meeting has determined the OAC champ four times in the past five years. Five of the six meetings, including a playoff game, were decided by eight points or less.
“Every game is a playoff game for us at this point. The focus right now is to come out and have our best practice of the year and worry about tomorrow’s practice tomorrow. We’re not worried about each game we have left. We just have to focus about getting better each practice. There’s no margin for error now and we all understand that. We have to play like that as well.
“We know we can play them again if we do what we’re supposed to do these next seven weeks. It starts with today’s practice and the game on Saturday. There’s really no looking past that. If we lose this Saturday, we don’t play them again, so we just have to focus on every single day. That’s our motivation.”
Assuming Mount Union wins out, John Carroll will need to do the same in order to have a shot at an at-large playoff berth. That’s not exactly an easy thing to accomplish in an OAC that keeps trending upward. The Blue Streaks fell to Heidelberg and Ohio Northern last year, for instance.
“Our goal is to take care of ourselves. We think the OAC is the best conference in Division III football. We have a lot of respect for everybody we play,” Finotti said. “We’re just trying to learn from this game and put that to good use. We need to go out, have fun and prepare to win.”
It starts for John Carroll (2-1) this week as it visits Muskingum (2-2). Capital, Ohio Northern, Marietta, Wilmington, Heidelberg and Baldwin Wallace loom on the horizon.
“People are definitely going to target us and come ready to play after that Mount Union game,” Canganelli said. “The OAC is the toughest conference, probably, in Division III. We need to focus every week and not take any opponent lightly.”
The Blue Streaks remain confident in their team.
“We’re getting better each week. We see it on film in practice that we’re getting better every day,” Connick said.
“I believe the sky is the limit for this group. I am really excited to see what we can do this year.”